An albergo diffuso, literally “widespread hotel” is an idea whose time has come. It’s a type of hotel woven through the very heart of an Italian village, creating jobs and a future for the local community. It offers opportunities for international investors too, or even joining together with friends. So what’s it all about?
Italy has many lovely villages, where you can stroll the narrow stone streets and see women making pasta, and sit a while with the old men in the piazza. The local population have a wealth of knowledge about local traditions, what produce grows well, family recipes and amazing craft skills.
If only you could stay in the heart of the village and live among the locals, you could learn so much, make new friends and meet some really interesting characters. In the medieval villages it can feel like you are walking through history. However, many visitors only come for a few hours.
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Stay in a village
Accommodation in the heart of a village is something that is growing in popularity. More people now want to experience life in an authentic village, rather than stay in a modern hotel with all-inclusive meals. The type of guest who want an authentic Italian experience will visit at all times of year, potentially creating a long rental season for those offering accommodation.
Learn about the food and culture
Visitors also want to learn about the local culture and food, and see how the cheese and pasta is made, how the grapes are picked and pressed, and witness local crafts people in action. It is fascinating to glimpse through a doorway and see an artist, a carpenter, a lace maker, a potter, or a baker creating delicious cakes and biscuits.
Tasting the local produce
Villages are usually surrounded by beautiful countryside with farms growing produce best suited to the local weather conditions and landscape. You might see vineyards, olive groves, fruit orchards, and woodlands where you can go hunting for mushrooms and truffles. Wine tasting routes are another big attraction.
Each area will have its own special dishes using the local produce. This also goes for the pasta, wine and cheese. There are over 400 pasta shapes across Italy, over 2,000 wine brands and more than 400 cheeses. Tasting sessions are popular with visitors to villages, as are the village “Saga” festivals, that celebrate a particular local product. Italian cooking courses and demonstrations are also becoming more sought after.
Choosing a village
It is easy to be tempted to buy a village property just because the price is cheap. However, it is very important to spend time in the village and get a real feel for the atmosphere. It is often the people who live there that make a happy village. If you are going to run a tourist business it’s vital that there are good neighbours.
It is very important to spend time in the village and get a real feel for the atmosphere.
You’ll probably target foreign tourists with your holiday accommodation, so distances from airports and road or rail links need researching. They may also want to be a short drive from other places of interest. For instance, are there any archaeological sites, waterfalls, spas, or walking and cycling trails in the area?
Always ask what events there are in the village and other towns nearby. These may include festivals for the patron saint of the town, markets, concerts, carnival, Easter, food sagas, new wine festivals, flower festivals, medieval processions and antique markets. These types of events can attract thousands to a tiny village over a weekend.
What guests expect
Although the modern traveler is wowed by a room that represents the character of the village, they also expect a certain level of hotel service, cleanliness and facilities, such as ensuite bathrooms and wifi. A clean and comfortable bed is the priority, but you also want the wow factor. If there is space you might also offer some self-catering facilities, so that guests have a cool place to store the fruit they were tempted to buy at the market.
It can be tricky to get the balance just right. An attempt at traditional décor might end up just looking old and tatty. But if you have original features such as a fireplace, beams, stone floors, exposed stone walls and antique furniture you are off to a good start. Examples of local arts and crafts can also help. But to get that “wow” from guests, a balcony or terrace with a view will be the ultimate winner every time.
Sounds and aromas
You want visitors to wake up and feel they are somewhere unique, or have traveled back in time. The sounds and aromas of the village should come wafting through the window. The man with cart selling fruit, the church bells, people chattering over a coffee and brioche.
One of the most unique Alergo Diffuso I have seen has rooms in caves in the Sassi area of Matera, Basilicata. These caves were once inhabited by poor families and had been left deserted for many years. More recently enthusiastic entrepreneurs have converted them into very unique “albergo diffuso” hotel rooms.
Italy has an abundance of villages with pretty churches and historic architecture ranging from the medieval to the renaissance. There may also be a castle, towers, ancient gateways and palaces (palazzo). However, you will also see buildings that haven’t been lived in for many years and are slowly becoming ruins. Often, they’ve been inherited by Italians who then moved away to work, don’t have the money to restore them or simply don’t see their potential.
There may also be a castle, towers, ancient gateways and palaces (palazzo).
Not all villages are only historic buildings surrounded by countryside. Tourism websites will only show you the pretty parts, but you should be aware that sometimes there will also be a newer town alongside. This may include ugly blocks of flats that ruin a view. On the plus side, these towns will provide restaurants, banks, pharmacies, doctors and other facilities needed year round and are less likely to become a ghost town. When considering a village always check it out on Google earth and street view.
The association promoting ancient Italian villages
In Italian the name for a historic village is a Borgo. In March 2001 the Association of “The Most Beautiful Villages in Italy” (I Borghi piu belli d’Italia) was set up by the Tourism Council of the National Association of Italian Municipalities (ANCI). This initiative arose from the need to enhance the great heritage of history, art, culture, environment and traditions present in villages which are, for the most part, marginalized by the flow of visitors and tourists.
In fact, there are hundreds of small “villages of Italy” that risk depopulation and consequent degradation due to economic interests gravitating towards a few tourist hot spots. For this reason, the ANCI aims to protect, enhance and maintain the heritage of monuments and memories that otherwise could be irretrievably lost.
The rebirth of the Italian village
In recent years, some villages have been reborn thanks to projects to attract more tourists. Old properties being offered at temptingly low prices has also brought in new residents. Hidden in the villages of Italy are small houses for sale for less than €50,000. Their restoration and subsequent use is bringing life back to these villages.
In some cases, the properties may be considered too small to convert into a family home. However, if you can create a bedroom and bathroom, and do the same with other properties in the historic centre, you will end up with a hotel that is scattered around the village. This is called an Albergo Diffuso.
What is an albergo diffuso?
The term “albergo diffuso” can be roughly translated to mean a “scattered hotel” or “widespread hotel”. That is, a hotel that features rooms and suites located across numerous buildings within the same village. The model was born to attract tourism to Italy’s smaller destinations, where quaint homes are located within a short walking distance of one another.
This type of hotel allows visitors to experience the most authentic side of Italy and encourages exchanges between travelers who want to learn about the area, and locals keen to share their heritage and traditions.
Although the rooms are scattered in different structures located throughout the village centre, it is run like a hotel with all the hotel services you would expect. The rooms are generally full of old character features, while being clean and comfortable. The impact on the environment is very low, because nothing new has been built. Instead, existing old building are being restored.
The accommodation facilities usually have a centralized reception building, possibly with more hotel rooms. They might also offer a lounge, breakfast room, and a sales area of typical local products.
Buy with friends
The accommodation could be owned by separate parties provided that the unitary management of the hotel is guaranteed. This means that friends or family could buy units separately and then bring them together under one hotel umbrella. A perfect example of this was a group of friends who created an Albergo Diffuso in the beautiful seaside town of Monopoli in Puglia.
Requirements of an albergo diffuso
Each Italian region will have its own different regulations and requirements for new “diffuso” hotels. These are the requirements of a scattered hotel according to the model developed by Giancarlo Dall’Ara:
- Single management – Accommodation facility managed in an entrepreneurial form in the centre.
- Hotel services – Hotel accommodation facility managed professionally.
- Residential units located in several separate and pre-existing buildings in an inhabited historic centre.
- Common services – Presence of rooms used as common areas for guests, such as a reception, bar, or refreshment point.
- Reasonable distance of the buildings – maximum 200 metres between the housing units and the structure with the reception services.
- A living community – In other words not a complete ghost town. On the other hand you don’t want to discover that the village rock band practice next door every night either.
- An authentic environment – Integration with the social reality and local culture. A good relationship will need to be built with the locals, to make sure they are all on board and recognise the benefits to the village, of being welcoming to guests.
- Recognisability – Defined and uniform identity of the structure; homogeneity of the services offered
- Management style integrated into the territory and its culture
History of the albergo diffuso
The concept of an albergo diffuso was born in Carnia, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, in 1982. Following the earthquake of May 1976 there was a need to enhance the houses as they were being renovated, to create a future income. Others that followed were the village of Comeglians, in the Carnic mountains, and the wood and stone chalets of Sauris. The idea soon spread south with scattered hotels opening in Bosa in Sardinia and Alberobello in Puglia in 1995.
This hospitality model was developed by tourism marketing professor Giancarlo Dall’Ara. It was then formally acknowledged in Sardinia with a specific regulation in 1998. There are now alberghi diffusi popping up in villages on hill tops, by the sea and in the mountains.
A scattered hotel is not only a model of hospitality “Made in Italy”, it is also a model of territorial tourism development, respectful of the environment and “sustainable”. It contributes to the development of the area, generates supply chains, provides jobs and helps to counteract the depopulation of the villages. In Friuli-Venezia Giulia, for example, the widespread hotel was created to recover rural properties in small mountain villages characterized by a consistent emigration phenomenon.
An Albergo Diffuso on TV
Gradually more people are hearing about Albergo Diffuso. Recently one featured on Sky 1 in a programme called “4 Hotel”. Borgotufi, is an Albergo Diffuso in Castel del Giudice, in the province of Isernia. Borgotufi was born from a very ambitious project by the municipality of Castel Del Giudice which wanted to give new life to a village that had fallen into a state of neglect. The hotel now consists of a main building with all the services for guests, including a spa, and 30 houses/rooms converted from old stables and houses scattered around the village.
There is now an Alberghi Diffusi National Association (ADi) which has a website offering information on members accommodation, so that you can get an idea what they offer. There is also information on regional regulations.